Battery Tech Show 2021 Panel Discussion: Battery, a critical component, is not something novel for India as it already has a mature market for lead-acid batteries. Currently, India is import dependent for battery cells, and this calls for a robust domestic battery manufacturing infrastructure with focus on ecosystem development and conducive policy environment.
India’s massive and diverse transport sector is now adopting sustainable mobility solutions like electric vehicles (EVs). It is one among the few countries driving a shift away from traditional fuel based transportation systems with priority towards environmental goals.
The good news is, now we have more EV models, battery technologies, chemistries, storage systems, manufacturing hubs, and charging infrastructure than ever before. This is motivating manufacturers to consider turning the country into a global manufacturing hub for batteries. However, there are barriers as well as opportunities to be considered.
Earlier, if we look at the dry-cell battery usage, we used to see it in small gadgets like cameras, laptops, and smartphones. But now their usage is migrating to EVs as well and the entire dynamics and requirement of the battery is changing. So, we need to look at what chemistry is used in batteries, heat generation, long lasting efficiency, and even recycling concepts.
Piyush Gupta, CEO, Lithion Power, says his company focuses on battery swapping and energy delivery for 2-wheelers and 3-wheelers that are largely operational in northern India at this point in time. With core focus around low- and medium-speed vehicles, he operates a network of battery swap stations for e-commerce companies using EV fleets for delivery.
“While we specialise in battery swapping, we are under no illusion that battery swapping is the only thing that is going to work. We believe in omni charging, and our technology allows people to charge at home, public charging infrastructures, or to do swapping, as is required to increase the customer range.”
Supratim Naskar, Co-founder and CTO, Cell Propulsion, says his EV mobility technology company focuses on commercial vehicle segment. Being in the B2B market, they develop solutions built on the entire technology stack—the hardware, battery pack, battery management system, motors, drives, all the way up to supporting software for a complete ecosystem. “We deploy our vehicles under operation with our customers. We don’t do upfront sales, but we come with the entire platform of energy services, vehicle servicing, and maintenance,” he says.
Although EV concepts are coming up in a big way, Naskar feels there is a huge gap in understanding and customers are mostly hesitant in adopting EV technologies. He says, “We thought to match that gap by holistic approaches. If someone wants to shift towards electric vehicles, they should not be worrying about other things like maintenance of the vehicle or energy infrastructures.”
According to India Energy Storage Alliance (IESA), the Indian EV market is estimated to grow at a CAGR of 36% annually till 2026. The Indian automotive industry is the fifth largest in the world and is slated to be the third largest by 2030. By making the shift towards EVs, India stands to benefit on many fronts due to its relative abundance of renewable energy resources and availability of skilled manpower in the technology and manufacturing sectors.
From a traditional electrical system manufacturing group, Chedda Electronics, Abhay Patwardhan, Director, EV Business, says his company decided to work in the back end of the technology rather than going into vehicle business. He adds, “So, we started working on the battery management system (BMS), the battery packs, swapping solutions, and almost all back ends.”
Though not directly into battery technology, Sangeet Kumar, CEO, Addverb Technologies, is working on robotics that uses different types of batteries. “Currently we are buying from a US company, but every US company is manufacturing in China. We are now working with one of the largest players in India. We hope it would work as we have now understood a lot about BMS, the electronics, and the software pack,” he says.
Sharing it as a ‘pain point,’ Kumar says manufacturing batteries had always been with Chinese companies, be it in the European market, or in the US market. “The battery is one of the key components used in all kinds of products. We in India do not have that kind of support system or manufacturing system that is there in China, though we are far better than them as far as software is concerned,” Kumar opines.
Battery tech in India
There’s no shortage of excitement for EV battery startups or investments in the industry, as companies and design engineers are looking to reap the opportunities. The Central government has announced a production-linked incentive (PLI) of 180 billion rupees for developing battery technologies in India. We are in a position to develop a complete ecosystem that is required for the high demand of EVs in India.
Naskar feels the PLI schemes will definitely push the local manufacturing sector to work in building technology solutions. “A lot of MSMEs will participate in the market and start building products for very specific applications,” he says.
However, the PLI scheme is not really designed to support a complete startup ecosystem, because it needs some kind of capital investment first. “But anyhow, it is definitely an encouraging scheme. And once big companies come into this game in a big way, there will be a lot of supporting ecosystem, and the market will be open for a lot more innovation. It is a good step towards improving the overall technology landscape that lies for lithium-ion batteries in the country,” Naskar explains.
Gupta says, “In order of magnitude, we are probably ahead compared to three years ago. So, the industry has actually taken significant steps. The maturity seen in battery pack assemblers is now also seen in people raising questions about it. So that has improved tremendously. But we continue to fall behind some of the other countries. And that essentially means, there is a significant gap for us to improve.”
Beginning with Tier I companies, Gupta says, the process of maturity in battery assembly is just a fraction of what you see in some of the other product categories. He opines, “A couple of reasons for that may be, for you to achieve process maturity, it requires significant volume and scale. The entire Indian industry doesn’t have a volume and scale where you could actually go for a proper grading of the cells, which are imported.” He adds, “If I aggregate the entire volume the Indian industry has, it will probably be smaller than the volume of a single large plant in China.”
“Despite the overwhelming issues, the positive side is we are significantly ahead of what we were in 2017 and 2018. So, there is a significant amount of hope for the industry. But it is also important to note, we are still behind some of the other countries. Even Tier 3 manufacturers in China probably are better than Tier 1 manufacturers in India,” Gupta opines.
From the usage perspective, Patwardhan says, either technology or the batteries will have to be sourced, and in application perspective, we are putting the costs in front of the technology. He says, “The intention of the incentive is basically to promote the internal R&D development, so that the cost is pushed behind and technology comes into play. But still, that seems to be a bit of a concern today.”
Patwardhan says, for attaining the quality today, we have to understand the best assembly of the cells. According to him, “We should make the best packs out of the cells and then go for cell manufacturing as there are well established resources and processes. And then the entire ecosystem will be able to get the right kind of product suitable for the Indian market.”
Expectations in Indian markets
Apart from EV, there are applications like robotics coming up in the forefront in a big way. From a user’s point of view, there are certain expectations from the battery manufacturers.
Talking about battery usage in robotics and other systems, Kumar finds more lithium-ion batteries, lithium-iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, and lithium-titanate oxide (LTO) batteries in action. He explains, “The number one requirement as a robotics supplier is safety. I don’t want my robot to harm anyone or any other machine, or harm itself, by the kind of safety system in the battery or the battery management system (BMS). The other things are efficiency and fast charging as we have customers asking the number of hours it can run and if the fast charging is limited to 1C, 3C, or 5C?”
While experts discuss on the ground challenges, there is also a concern on temperature and its control techniques. Kumar says, the BMS is very important, but as a robot builder, I should not be building BMS. He thinks, “Application decides BMS, and it needs more understanding, studies, and rewriting algorithms. It has to be according to the application which will suit my needs.”
Another important expectation he points out is Wi-Fi charging ability, which is now offered by many of the European competitors.
Decoding battery chemistries
There is often a confusion on what will be the right chemistry for the battery to make it safe or long-lasting. There is also an ongoing hype about sodium batteries that are heavier and cheaper than lithium-ion. Some serious efforts in working under the skin of batteries has led to more innovation in recent years. So, here are a few things to consider.
Chemistry depends on product design. The technological first style lithium-ion chemistry is still found to be interesting by industry experts due to its variations having different types of command cells and also other chemistries like LFP, Ca doped LTO, and sodium ion cells. Solid-state batteries are expected to grow as the energy sector is rapidly innovating and trying to build products that can be commercialised for a long time.
Naskar says, “As a technology developer, I can tell there is no specific one answer to the question of which chemistry would really be suited for a long term. It really depends on your product design and the kind of market you want to deliver to. For some, safety and light weight will matter and for others it may not.”
Most suited chemistry for India. Naskar strongly feels LFP will be a way forward specifically for the tropical climate of India. He says, “After testing multiple chemistries by benching them against each other, and considering our climate, road conditions, and the driving cycle, if we go for an LFP battery pack, it provides the safety we want from the system.”
Although this decision may take a hit on the mass budget for the battery pack, the overall cost of the system comes down, meeting our functional requirements on the vehicle. Naskar thinks this may not be true for a two-wheeler manufacturer as the vehicle itself is very lightweight and would need a much lighter system. He says, “It depends on what type of system you are building.”
Patwardhan also believes that LFP is the right chemistry for India. So, when you look at the picture in NMC (lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide), chemistry is appropriate.
Ultimately, any chemistry is appropriate, but the question is how effectively you manage the spiral chart. If you look at all the chemistries, they have a different axis—power, density, safety, and many standards which just cannot be compromised. He explains, “For an LFP battery, we take a drop test multiple times from 150ft and have it crushed with a bulldozer just to demonstrate the appropriateness of a chemistry needed for the Indian conditions that are abusive in terms of environment.”
Sodium-ion: The future
The more recent leg in the battery chemistry race is sodium-ion combination. Done right, this technology could lead to widespread adoption in the market. Experts believe this new chemistry has a future because of limited resources available for predecessors like lithium-ion for which India will continue to be dependent on the global supply-chain, even if demands of manufacturing are internalised.
Being a peninsular country with coastlines, sodium is more abundantly available in India. Companies like Faradion are already trying to set up a sodium-ion based cell manufacturing facility in India. The industry experts opine this would be the next big thing.
“It is probably in the lab right now. We can’t have a commercial deployment of sodium-ion for another 5-10 years. Though we always try to find initial applications for this, thinking about energy storage, mobility, and bigger amounts of deployments, sodium-ion is twenty years away from maturity,” says Gupta. “So, the only chemistry, a bit expensive and significantly safer for Indian conditions, is currently the LFP,” he adds.
Limiting the use of NMC. Meanwhile, Gupta suggests banning NMC batteries in India. NMC batteries are cheap with high energy. But these are considered primarily responsible for almost all the accidents due to substandard electronic control. “Not because it has bad chemistry but, as a country, we do not know how to use it. So, unless we are able to significantly improve compliance in India, we should limit its use to avoid accidents,” says Gupta.
Unfortunately, experts have seen a tendency in opting for cheaper battery solutions rather than safety. “It is difficult to work with such customers or vendors,” Gupta says.
Battery engineering. The world has benefitted from the NMCs. But, at the same time, it is a result of a lot of effort in designing the battery. The intelligence is at the NMC integration level, not in the cells. “Any chemistry with appropriate engineering is good,” Patwardhan says.
Patwardhan puts emphasis on integration of NMCs as the reason behind that kind of battery pack with energy and cost efficiency. He explains, “The first interaction happens from anywhere in dollars per KW. Ultimately, economics of business is going to drive what you want to put into that particular application. But safety cannot be the least priority.”
The qualification of the batteries in Indian standards has to look beyond homologation and mandation as a basic hygiene of the product. Patwardhan says, “Almost all batteries pass, and they don’t run hazardous even at the nascent stage of the deployment. So, there is also a need to look at it holistically with regards to homologation and awareness when we put it into the market.”
Gupta also highlights that it is not about chemistry, but how well you are able to engineer it.
He says, “I am a firm believer in standards, but I am a much firmer believer in the importance of compliance of the standards. So, all the standards may be very good, but compliance is extremely weak. And if you have such weak compliance, the only way out of it is just to ban it.”
Is recycling practical?
A hot topic among batteries is recycling. There are companies that work on taking out raw material from lithium-ion cells for repurposing it. There is a huge economics that drives this entire cell recycling scenario, but from a manufacturer’s side, it would be called cell management or cell disposal, or something like e-waste management.
Naskar has witnessed many companies struggling to take care of e-waste produced by lithium-ion cells. There will always be rejections from your production and there is usually confusion on where to keep or dump it. He says, “I have seen a huge gap and the vendors have also yet not been able to really deliver on what they wanted to do with those cells lost in our production or testing.”
Naskar says, “I think the minimum requirement for a company to take up and make a profit out of it is 500kg or one tonne worth of bad cells, which can be recycled. So, accumulating that amount of waste for management will itself be a problem in most facilities. It’s not a very straightforward thing, but there are a lot of stakeholders in the entire process.” He adds, “It is a chicken and egg problem, because we don’t have that much production capacity in the country. The efficiency of recycling really depends on the process used.”
Kumar feels recycling batteries will not help him sell more robots in India, but it may help sell outside India. He says, “Sustainability is something that is given a premium in more advanced markets like European or Japanese. So, it can be feasible for markets abroad.”
Charging vs swapping
There are some serious talks on battery charging infrastructure, fast charging capabilities, and even swappable batteries, all of which have a role to play in the large geography of India. Gupta says, “My company specialises in swapping, but we respect charging, home charging, and fast charging, and we believe a combination of the three exists in the market.”
With technologies in the nascent stage, the ultimate aim of the country is to have its users trained and free from anxiety. If a certain battery can be charged fast, then yes. If it can be done by swapping, then yes. But both have different pros and cons, and would exclusively co-exist in certain pockets of business segments. Patwardhan says this will evolve with time, but both these should be looked at as energy replacement techniques. For instance, a user may not want fast charging if he’s charging at home.
Is fast charging a myth?
Patwardhan opines that fast charging in a true sense is a myth. “Because as you try to charge faster, it will charge to a low extent. So, there is going to be a trade-off. Second, you may end up increasing the temperature of the battery. So, how useful it turns out after that for the drive condition becomes a performance challenge.”
From a user perspective, a fast charger of 20kW needs a 3-phase connection. Now, for day-to-day operations, we do not get this 3-phase connection of so much capacity available easily. Also, there is hardly any room for management of heat generated by the batteries. Patwardhan explains, “Maybe the two-wheeler battery packs are smaller and easy to swap. A big battery pack from a vehicle will need a big replacement mechanism. Only time will tell its feasibility.”
Areas to build expertise
Naskar suggests stationary energy storage as a definite option to build expertise in terms of batteries to remove the pain point, as power backups are used in telecom industries, households, and more. The other area he points to is drone technology. He adds, “I think the batteries that we are using for a standard warehouse robot, we can repurpose and maybe use for a similar application for e-bikes. Not may be e-scooters, but electric powered bicycles.”
Patwardhan says the first major challenge in a battery pack is the packaging because you will never get enough space to build what you want to, and then there is the issue of thermal management. These two are the backbone of constructing any battery pack meaningfully for any application.
EV manufacturing in India is mostly a cost-driven exercise. For instance, a Bouguereau price point is $1,800 and it gives a range of 80km. With the same vehicle and performance expectations in India, no one would be willing to pay more than $800.
Patwardhan sees this as an opportunity. He says, “With vehicle manufacturers pointing out that the battery represents 30 or 40% of the total cost, doing a battery business actually means I am doing little less than half of the vehicle business.” He strongly believes that EVs would be sold without battery and battery fitment would eventually become universal, giving the user an option to decide whether he needs it for only 50km or 100km.
EV technology is going to be a big revolution and a great opportunity for India to take global leadership. There will be a requirement for motor control application, battery management system, charging station, DC-to-DC converters, and many more things related to electronics, which will drive the demand for semiconductors, connectors, and passive components. The innovation to suit Indian conditions will be the critical requirement as far as the electronic embedded part of the vehicle is concerned.
With India having a strong backbone in the MSME sector and manufacturing, Naskar says he does not find any limitation for battery manufacture, in general. By extending the boundaries from domestic to international, India would get a huge cost advantage in the international markets. He adds, “I think it’s a good opportunity and a lot of investment push is coming from the government as well. We are completely set to get into this revolution and take the lead.”
The article was prepared by Abbinaya Kuzhanthaivel, an Assistant Editor at EFY, based on the panel discussion held during Battery Tech Show 2021 among Piyush Gupta, CEO, Lithion Power; Supratim Naskar, Co-founder and CTO, Cell Propulsion; Sangeet Kumar, CEO, Addverb; Sanjeev Keskar, CEO, Arvind Consultancy; and Abhay Patwardhan, Director, EV Business, Chheda Electricals And Electronics Pvt Ltd.